Monday, March 22, 2010

Dispatch from the Medieval Academy Meeting @ Yale: The Toronto Feminists

Figure 1. Bracha Ettinger, "Matrix-Family Album," series, n. 3


I was not able to attend the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, held at Yale University this past weekend [18-20 March], but Kathleen Biddick has graciously agreed to let us post here the comments she made on a roundtable organized by Nancy Partner, The Toronto Feminists: How Did We Get Here from There? And Where is "Here"? The panel featured Kathleen Biddick, Dyan Elliott, Judith Bennett, and Maryanne Kowaleski, all of whom prepared remarks in response to questions posed by Nancy Partner beforehand. As is to be expected, Kathleen Biddick's remarks are richly provocative [especially her formulation, via the radical psychoanalytic thinking of Bracha Ettinger, to transmedieval transubjectivities, and her call for blasphemy at the end], and they also provide a rare insight into Biddick's own academic autobiography:

March 20, 2010
Yale University, New Haven
PANEL: The Toronto Feminists: How did we get Here from There? And where is “Here”?
Organizer: Nancy Partner
Panelists: Judith Bennett, Kathleen Biddick, Dyan Elliott, Maryanne Kowaleski

Response: Kathleen Biddick, Dept. of History, Temple University (

Question 1 In grad school, what did the category terms “woman/women” seem to mean, if and when they ever occurred at all? When can you remember “sex” being mentioned in connection with historical research? And when do you think you first learned the word “gender”?

Thank you, Nancy Partner, for organizing this panel. Your invitations have always productively provoked my thinking. The chance to participate in your 1993 Speculum special issue on Studying Medieval Women: Sex, Gender, Feminism gave me the opportunity to explore what Joan Scott has called the “psychodynamics of critique”—in her words “the critical refusal to accept the rules (the terms of identity) set by someone (or some group) I nevertheless care deeply about, indeed whose aims I share and whose approval and affection I also seek
(“Finding Critical History,” in Becoming Historians, ed. James M. Banner and John R Gillis [Univ. of Chicago, 2009], p. 41).

My critical contributions today, as then, are offered in such a spirit.

Let me open with a conjuring.

How many feminists ghosts can fit on our podium? MANY
so please let me conjure just one: Nellie Neilson, one of 8 women to have received an American doctorate in history before 1900, at age 53 (1926) first elected female fellow the Medieval Academy, and at age 70 (1943) first ever elected female president of the American Historical Association. Neilson has always inspired me. Her work embodied precociously the productive tensions of critical history: in her loving attention to language, she cultivated a Maitlandian sensitivity to philology (Frederick Maitland being her English mentor) and at the same time she attended to the particularity of the archive. She channeled her archival studies of the estate of Ramsey Abbey to Ambrose Raftis (Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies), the dissertation supervisor of Judith, Maryanne, and myself. In his own dedication to critical history, I now conjure Raftis (alas now, too, a ghost) to our podium as an honorary feminist.

Let me now move on to your questions: when did we encounter the categories women, sex, and gender?

My short answer: Blame it on Barnard College Class of 1971. I dedicated my first book, The Other Economy: Pastoral Economy on a Medieval Estate (1989) to my medieval mentors at Barnard College: Suzanne Fonay Wemple and Maristella Lorch and the company of Barnard women, 1967-71. As early as 1966, Barnard professor Annette Baxter was already precociously offering a course on the History of American Women. I learned about sex and gender when I studied with the internationally famous and deeply dashing sociologist, Mira Komaravosky, a pioneering expert on gender, especially on masculinities. Our class studied her then recently published and now famous book on BLUE COLLAR MARRIAGE. Given my class background, it seemed to me that I was learning more than I wanted to know about masculinity, femininity and gender. I can remember vividly a rather tearful interview with Prof. K. in which we discussed my discomfort over the painful closeness of her book to my background. Her deeply intelligent response: you are not your identity; your identity is not you. Komarovsky instilled in me a profound insight into the discursive process, an insight which stuck with me in my graduate studies and subsequent research. You are not your identity she told me; your identity is not you (Wow, thank you, Mira Komarovsky)!

And not to be forgotten, my Barnard course in Greek tragedy with the recently arrived assistant (and also beautiful) professor of classics, HELENE FOLEY, who went on to become an elected fellow of the American Academy for her feminist scholarship of Greek tragedy. Her brilliant course planted in me the seed of thinking deeply about Antigone. One of my favorite undergraduate courses,
Antigone and the Limits of Sovereignty, took root at Barnard.

But there is more to say about how Barnard, untimely in those times, shaped my desire for knowledge. There is the one professor with whom I did not get to study, a young professor who arrived at Barnard around 1968 or 1969. To the student body, she was simply thrilling; in other words, she created a buzz. This was the young Catherine Stimpson, who would contribute so much to feminist and queer scholarship and to making the academy a more livable space. Somehow, back then, we understood that she embodied what Homi Bhabha has called something new entering the world. Epistemological embodiments still thrill me.

So when I arrived in Toronto to commence my graduate studies in 1973, you could say by the standards of the master’s discourse, I was deeply deluded. I expected nothing less than the powerful and beautiful intellects of Judith, Maryanne, Dyan. And I expected Ambrose Raftis to support my work in the epistemological spaces inbetween history, philosophy, literature. And so he did! Around 1973, I had yet to discover the brutality of the disciplinarity of history—more about that traumatic fall from grace as the panel unfolds.

Question 2 …..This is my career. It consists of sitting in rooms filled with men. When did this change? And when it changed, what changed? Things feel different now, but different doesn’t feel as different as I thought it should….

The work of feminist theory is not finished yet. And it won’t be finished as long as the discourse of the master, what Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizkek have called University discourse, prevails hegemonically. According to Lacan and Zizek, University discourse is the discourse of the master who “disavows [his] performative dimension, presenting what effectively amounts to a political decision based on power as a simple insight into the factual state of things” (Zizek, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle [Verso, 2005], p. 139). By disavowing the gap between the subject position of enunciation and enunciated content, university discourse disavows fantasy.

In one of my all-time favorite books of medieval scholarship, The Master and Minerva: Disputing Women in French Medieval Culture (1995), fellow Torontonian medievalist, Helen Solterer, brilliantly elucidates how medieval scholastic protocols of dispute inscribed a female figure at their center. That feminine symbolic is what the University discourse repetitiously produces (even in the so-called days of postgender) as the disavowed foreign body at its very heart. Symptoms of such phallic thinking riddle the series of essays published recently in the December 2008 American Historical Review Forum on Revisiting “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”.

I think that fantasy can undo University discourse from within. One of the most exciting recent examples of this is the work of Bracha L. Ettinger, artist, psychoanalyst, feminist theorist and professor of psychoanalysis and aesthetics at the University of Leeds. Ettinger is reworking Lacan’s late work and Freud’s theory of the uncanny in order to rethink feminist theory beyond masculine-feminine difference (see her book The Matrixial Borderspace [Univ. of Minnesota, 2006]). To do so, Lacan warned, is to court psychosis. Ettinger breaks this taboo. In breathtaking moves she replaces the phallic structure of difference with a transubjective theory of co-emergence. She materializes her theory of these thresholds of identity and memory in her painting. Does Ettinger’s rethinking of psychoanalysis beyond the sadistic-aggressive structure of separation and radical alterity signified by the Phallus and Castration “without displacing or rejecting either “ (p.17) have any relevance for medieval scholarship?

For my work, it is her notion of transcryptum that I find most productive. Ettinger defines transcryptum as the “artobject or artevent, artoperation or artprocedure, which incarnates transcription of trauma and cross-inscriptions of its traces, in which case the artwork’s working-through of the amnesia of the world into memory is a transcryptomnesia: the lifting of the world’s hidden memory from its outside with-in-side” (p. 167).

New undertakings, such as the journal postmedieval, are exploring such transmedieval attunements. Likewise, the recently published collection of essays by Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul, Medievalisms in the PostColonial World: The Idea of the Middle Ages Outside Europe (Johns Hopkins, 2009) transcrypts. In my current project, entitled Dead Neighbors: Sovereignty and the Archive, I am attempting my own transcryptum. This project vibrates between the discourse on miracles to be found in contemporary debates over sovereignty (Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Carl Schmitt, Eric Santner) and an interrupted reading of Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies. My project stages the archive and the artevent (whether it be the Bury Cross and governmentality, the optics of Shakespeare’s play, King Richard II, and the medieval Eucharistic debate, engravings of the Turk, the name given to automata that wowed the salons of late 18th century Europe which made its way into Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History) as tuning forks that vibrate in the encounter with the corporeal, that is those dead neighbors, Jews and Muslim, out of which, I argue, medieval and early modern sovereignty fashioned its second immortal body.

But medievalists, please handle transmedieval transubjectivies with care. The University discourse resists. For example, take the fate of my NEH fellowship proposal for my project Dead Neighbors. The review panel awarded it a ranking of “no merit,” because (as the comments stated) it was not “in the spirit of the mission of the NEH.” It is labor to bring new things into the world.

Question 3 Setting: Late 90s at the American Historical Association meeting….Joan Scott and Natalie Davis walk into the crowded conference room….I could see a “wave-effect” ….I thought I was seeing that some big sea change had really happened in the profession. Right?

What vibrates in such a wave is not Scott and Davis as subjects, but rather the critique they practice. Critique is not dead yet, in spite of ferocious efforts to silence it. Critique endures in its slow, patient, focused interrogation of the “grounds of the system’s possibility.” When, for instance, King's College London recently decided to drop its longstanding faculty position in medieval paleography (a recent event to which the Medieval Academy responded) and one which, I think, needs to be heard as the canary in the mineshaft, deconstructive critique can come to our aid—in the words of Joan Scott: “what we need now is a reassertion of the value of critique, a defense of its scholarly integrity, and an articulation of its philosophical presuppositions
(“Against Eclecticism,differences 16.3 [2005]: p. 127).

The productive question to pose to King's College London is not one about preserving tradition, or the perils of presentism, or the pragmatics of practicality (as important as such interrogations might be); instead, I think, we need to grasp fully the discursive strategies whereby the corporatized Anglo-American University is increasingly reorganizing itself around sameness both in the classroom and in the research carrel. This process is already quite advanced and it has taken its toll on junior scholars in premodern studies who are especially vulnerable, I think, to the drive for sameness. Thus, many of them have to closet their passion for critique. So critique needs to ask, what are the conditions of possibility for “sameness” in the University discourse of power today?

I think we could begin a conversation about this by looking again at the set of essays recently published in the American Historical Review Forum (December 2008) on Revisiting
Gender as a Category of Historical Analysis. What seemed to have dropped out between 1986 and 2008 is critique. What is left is the becoming-orthodox of women’s studies, gender studies, queer studies.

So perhaps the time has come to plan another retrospective, this one on a famous feminist manifesto published in 1985 (Socialist Review): Donna Haraway’s cyborg manifesto. In the opening of that essay, Haraway meditates on blasphemy: “blasphemy always seems to require taking things seriously. Blasphemy is not apostasy.”


Eileen Joy said...

I have been thinking a lot about Kathleen Biddick's comments here over the past 2 days, and I am especially struck by her comments regarding University Discourse [and its disavowal of fantasy] and its drive toward "sameness," which perhaps damages young scholars [or really, *any* scholars] in our field who seek what I would call new *edges* of critique and maybe, also, pace many of our conversations here, new critical *modes* of address within our field. Next week I will be at NYU participating in a panel [sponsored by the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium] on historicism and post-historicism, with Karl S., Dan Remein, and Patricia Dailey, and I am thinking that might be an ideal place to ruminate Biddick's "transmedieval" further. I also have some hope about the type of work in our field that could "undo" University Discourse [and we might say Medieval Studies Master Discourse] from with-in when I look ahead to several projects on the horizon--the special issue of "postmedieval" that Jeffrey and Cary Howie will be editing on "New Critical Modes":

--and also the 2 panels organized by Anna Klosowska and Nicola Masciandaro on the "post-abysmal" for the upcoming Kalamazoo Congress [scheduled for Thursday afternoon]:


Anna Klosowska (Miami University of Ohio) and Nicola Masciandaro (Brooklyn College, CUNY), Co-Organizers

The concepts we work with as we read medieval texts — fragment, plenitude, anagogy, devotion, smallness, radiance, saturation, etc. — constitute for each one of us a way to think through a new step in theory, including queer theory. Our manifesto is: “Give us something that is more than nothing; we're tired of the abyss/death. What else is there?” Both theoretical and thoroughly medieval in our orientation, we draw the impetus for this session from our belief in the importance of theoretical work as it applies to our different disciplines. The panelists are united in their belief that: 1) the study of medieval texts is aided, clarified, and furthered by a serious inquiry into the conditions and modalities of theoretical frameworks; and 2) a serious engagement with theory today calls for a reassessment of the Continental tradition, including the primacy of death, the supposed inaccessibility of meaning, and the linguistic turn. We want to argue against the “lack” model of theory as it stands today. This session, thus, is resolutely “post”: post-post-modern, post-lack, post-humanist, post-Heideggerian, post-Blanchot, post-silence, post-death, post-speculative realism, even. With Michael Snediker, our Respondent, we create “epistemologies not of pain, but of pleasure; aestheticize not the abdication of personhood, but its sustenance” ("Queer Optimism"); with Alain Badiou, we want “a theater of capacity, not of incapacity” ("Handbook of Inaesthetic"), as we “return to the place of life” ("Saint Paul"); and with Giorgio Agamben, we want to speak the “language in which the pure prose of philosophy would intervene at a certain point to break apart the verse of the poetic word, and in which the verse of poetry would intervene to bend the prose of philosophy into a ring” ("Language and Death").

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


1. The Post-Absymal I: Exegesis, Ethics, Saturation

* Erik Butler (Emory University), "The Middle Ages Never Ended: Exegesis and Commonplace"

This paper argues for the timeliness of anachronism. The title refers to Léon Bloy’s "Exégèse des lieux communs" (1902-1912). Against the grain of contemporary sensibilities, Bloy, the perpetual malcontent, claimed that the commonplace, like modern life itself, had fallen into dereliction. By definition, a clichéd phrase presumes to pronounce an everlasting verity. The task of the exegete, then, is to uncover a spiritual meaning in everyday discourse, a truth hidden to the vulgar. Historicism has a blind spot when it freezes the past and subordinates its creations to the present and passing concerns. Why should our day be more vital than earlier ages, which confronted problems that have hardly vanished with time? Is it not possible that our era of digital reproduction, automation, and mass-mediated spectacle is less alive than any other? The demarcation between “now” and “then” has been erected to hold events in place artificially. Only when the border is suspended can the future — whether “post-modern” or “post-medieval” — appear. The eternal (should it exist) is not lighted by a sun in the process of combustion and self-extinction.

* Nicola Masciandaro, "Getting Anagogic"

The anagogic sense is totally post-abysmal by virtue of being an experience of significance as palpably crossing the gap between word and thing, as fulfilling signification by overcoming signifying as such. Being the sense that proverbially gives a foretaste (praegustus) of heaven, anagogy fuses in principle the sensuous and the transcendent, the temporal and the eternal, and is accordingly conceived in the medieval period as the mystical sense of textual understanding, that “which perfects through spiritual ecstasies and sweet perceptions of wisdom” (Bonaventure) and provides “the foreseeing of hoped-for rewards” (Richard of St. Victor). Anagogy is thus defined by a simultaneously double movement, a going at once beyond and more deeply within the terms of the present. This double movement is intelligible, as Henri de Lubac explains, as anagogy’s eternalizing trajectory, its entering into the place that holds everything, its finding of the something that includes what searches for it: “[anagogy] forms the total and definitive sense. It sees, in the eternal, the fusion of mystery and mysticism. Alternatively, the eschatological reality attained by anagogy is the eternal reality in which every other has its consummation.” Crucially, the mode, the substance, the how of anagogy is pleasure, the savoring of the sense itself, which is (typically) sweet, fragrant, brilliant, and perfectly subjective is an absolutely objective way: “Every person . . . is free to pursue the thought and experiences, however sublime and exquisite, that are his by special insight, on the meaning of the Bridegroom’s ointments” (Bernard of Clairvaux). The anagogic sense is deeply positive, good, a flavor from a wonderfully/terribly absolute perspective that precludes the possibility of not saying yes to it, of not tasting it for yourself. Who does not enjoy actually sensing the inevitability of her utmost bliss? Anagogy idealizes the real, preempts the abyss.

So the question I will pursue is: Where is the anagogic sense now? Where has it gone? Nowhere. The anagogic sense is always present. Every hermeneutic realizes some form of non-dualistic psycho-sensual fulfillment. Every thought and interpretation revolves around a taste for something immanent to itself. The issue is: what? In dialogue with medieval and modern authors (Rilke, Richard Rolle, Bachelard, Jacopone da Todi, Wittgenstein, Julian of Norwich, Agamben, Ibn Arabi), my paper will venture into the potentiality of this what beyond its traditional theological determination.

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


* Sol Neely (University of Alaska Southeast), "The Cruel Practice of Ethics"

In light of the post-abysmal manifesto — "Give us something that is more than nothing; we're tired of the abyss/death. What else is there?" — I want to talk about Levinas's notion of the "Il y a," which is his answer to exactly this question. The "Il y a" ("there is") expresses the pulsating anonymity of being, a "there is a there is," and he develops this notion from the concept of hypostasis. I will link Levinas' notion of hypostasis to its medieval origins and connect this to his notion of the "general economy of being." I have always thought that medieval literature dramatizes a Bataille-Levinas coincidence (coinci-dance?) that too many readers find horrific. Perhaps I will turn briefly to the monastic utopia dramatized in "The Land of Cokaygne," which expresses both general economy (in Bataille's sense) and a general economy of being (in Levinasian sense).

* Anna Klosowska, "Poetry of the Small"

An exploration into the poetic and theological dimensions of smallness as a way to articulate new readings of the Occitan canon. How are small things, not necessarily even saturated gold jewels, but humble everyday things, alchemically quintessential and radiant (images I eagerly borrow from Dan Remein)? While Dan Remein and Eileen Joy care to speak of, to articulate, the theories of, extremes of the small-as-plenitude, the alchemical and the saturated, respectively — I will follow the tracks of the humble object of which some Occitan poems make their meaning: hoarfrost (inverse flower?), a piece of string or tack, a glove.

* Eileen Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville), "It's Never Enough: Notes Toward a Saturated Literary Criticism"

This paper will take as its initial starting point John Caputo's idea that the literary text — whether Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" or the New Testament — is a “primary scene” of “the event,” described by Caputo as “a kind of epistemic free radical that can migrate through many strata, the analysis of which reveals to us the sphere of the absolutely possible, of hitherto suppressed possibilities, previously undisclosed openings, and unimagined, unrealized unsuspected futures” (“Bodies Still Unrisen, Events Still Unsaid,” Angelaki 12.1 [April 2007]: 73-86). Further, as Caputo writes, “whereas the ‘world’ is tightly bound and confined,” the event “freely circulates,” especially through bodies whose flesh is simultaneously a site of vulnerability and of pleasure, of bodies that so pulsate with sensation that their acting in the world is suspended and the flesh itself becomes all the world there is.” Through a reading of an event as it circulates through a specific flesh-saturated body in Malory's "Tale of Balyn and Balan" — a woman who commits suicide over her dead lover's body while Balyn watches in astonishment, the aesthetic frame of the forest, the text, just behind him (with the whole scene forming a moment of narrative suspension, of radical possibility, albeit framed within a generic “plot” that can only go in one direction) — I hope to trace a new space for literary criticism as a site of interminable, saturated becoming, of writing in order to write even more, or as Caputo exhorts, "To live in order to live even more."

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


2. The Post-Abysmal II: Optimism, Devotion, Radiance

* Dan Remein (New York University), "Small Poem/Radiant Medieval"

In complicity with Samuel Beckett’s poem “Alba” and Dante’s "Purgatorio," these remarks will explore the possibility of a poetics of vertiginously small places, whose radiant unreadability (re)produces a literary modernism with a medieval heart capable of flouting the lack which would prevent a certain queer mixing of persons, things, pasts, presents, literary spaces and ‘real’ places. Small, because of the formal elements of the poem; vertiginous and indeed optimistically radiant in the ensuing density and unreadability of its complicity with medieval material — what might have been appropriated as modernist purgatorial, paradisiacal, or alchemical (transformational) lack appears instead as the ease of giving-in to the allure of such a densely radiant place. In the place called to appearance by the poem, the reader is invited to plunge into a radiant black-hole where distinctions between medieval, modern, persons, things, language (and the lack supposedly governing them) are all replaced by the production of a small place.

* Irina Dumitrescu (Southern Methodist University), "Saturnian Poetics"

Saturn, celestial body and pagan god with an euhemeristic past, had not yet given his name to a dark humoural disposition when he played the curious Chaldean prince in the Old English poems "Solomon and Saturn I" and "II." Nor, indeed, did that English possess the word "melancholy" to adjoin to his name. Still, the Saturn of these poems returns compulsively to the problem of sadness, joining to it violent excitement and curiosity. His voracious appetite for wisdom and texts recalls the god's feasting on his own children and suggests a way of reading characterized and made possible by fragmentation and incorporation. In turn, the fragmented poetics of both poems offers a deliberately tantalizing solution to his curiosity: it is through the experience of sorrow, compunction and a sense of loss that deep reading — and laughter — may come.

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


2. The Post-Abysmal II: Optimism, Devotion, Radiance


* Heather Bamford (University of California, Berkeley), "Old, but Not Tired: Closeness According to the Scars on One Epic"

This presentation begins with what Hans Gumbrecht might call “scars” on the surface of a medieval Spanish epic fragment, a tile containing verses of the "Poema de Fernán González" ("Eat your Fragments"). These ruptures solicit various types of putting back together, or philological surgeries. At the center of these philological surgeries, particularly in the case of epic testimonies, is a desire for a heightened sense of proximity, which I call closeness, with the protagonists involved in the histories of these fragments, as well as with the writing and images they contain. By accepting the scars as potential sites of contact with the past and by permitting discussion of the fuzzy questions regarding their creation, a different sort of contact with the medieval, albeit not a cognitive or historical one, can be brought about.

* Cary Howie (Cornell University), "As If: After Ciappelletto"

The title comes from the end of the first novella in the "Decameron," where the narrator asserts that, even though Ciappelletto was no saint, he serves as one if we pray to him as such, "as if we were having recourse to a truly holy man through the mediation of His grace." I want to use this as a chance to talk about the places where hope and cynicism meet, where the "as if" becomes not merely wishful but, in fact, effectual. Since so much of the basic wager of criticism relies upon treating things as if they were more than just what they are — and doing so in a way that, at its best, speaks of hope rather than cynicism, and finds that this 'more' ultimately inheres within those things after all — I'm finding it an especially evocative way of thinking the work, or, if you will, the devotion, of criticism these days.

* RESPONDENT: Michael Snediker (Queen's University, Ontario)